Sermon for Advent 4 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I made a terrible mistake in my sermon preparation regimen this week. It’s not like I got the readings mixed up or anything like that. Instead, I made the mistake of writing my Christmas sermon before writing my Advent 4 sermon, and I think I got the seasonally appropriate tone and likely audience switched in my head. So at Christmas Eve tomorrow you’ll hear about dialectical materialism and the consummation of history, and today, this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’ll talk about a dumb Christmas movie. I pray it all comes out in the wash, as it were.

Also, fair warning, this might be the third time in my life I will be accused of ruining Christmas. The first time was when I shared some unwelcome speculation with my kindergarten class about the true identity of the provider of Christmas gifts. The second time was a choir member at my former parish, after I said we could have Advent Lessons and Carols during Advent or Christmas Lessons and Carols during Christmastide, but not Christmas Lessons and Carols during Advent.

So, let’s talk about a really bad Christmas movie, and I apologize in advance if you like it and if this ruins it for you. As the youngsters say, “don’t @ me.” Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. To explain Rotten Tomatoes’ 0% rating, one should only need to say the following seven words: “‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ Breakdance.” The late Roger Ebert dubbed this moment “the whitest thing [he] had ever seen.” Cameron, for his part, blames “atheists and haters” for the bad reviews, but I for one am neither an atheist nor (I hope) a hater. I just think it misses the mark in some significant ways.

Now, there are some “so bad it’s good” moments in the film, particularly the scene where St. Nicholas is shown beating up the heretic Arius at the council of Nicaea, shot like an action movie. But on the whole the movie is just “so bad it’s bad,” and this is largely because of its peculiar raison d’être.

You see, the point is not what you’d expect. It is not an indictment of secular culture ignoring or de-Christianizing Christmas- an argument which I personally find tiresome, but I understand why it gets some folks exercised. Instead, it is intended to convince Christians who are uncomfortable with the apparently pagan roots of some Christmas traditions (Christmas trees, the establishment of December 25th to coincide with Saturnalia and the Nativity of Sol Invictus, &c.) that these traditions were in fact first invented by Christians and then coöpted by pagans after the fact.

Now, I know there are a few putatively Christian churches that refuse to celebrate any holidays, but since old school Puritanism has more-or-less ceased to exist, it seems like Cameron is really preaching to the choir, as it were. As early as the first generation after Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians have taken non-Christian practices and ideas and Christianized them, as evinced in the Acts of the Apostles when St. Paul reinterprets the “Altar to an Unknown God” in the Areopagus as pointing to the God of Israel and of Jesus. But, for whatever reason, Cameron cannot permit such historical accretions to pollute his pure religion.

Some of the points he makes have historical merit and others don’t, but it’s really not worth taking a deep dive, and I don’t recommend seeing the movie. Go watch A Charlie Brown Christmas instead.

There is, however, one point (the last point which the film tries to make) on which I think the movie goes from harmless schlock to actually problematic. The argument goes something like this… Christmas, you argue, has become too commercialized, too materialistic. But in the Incarnation god becomes matter. Thus, matter is good, so we should be materialistic. Therefore, don’t feel any guilt about spending too much on gifts, making the most lavish feast for Christmas dinner, and forgetting about the poor and needy.

Now, I suppose we could construct a straw man who argues that giving gifts to family and friends and having a nice dinner are totally selfish and un-Christian, but I don’t actually know anybody who makes that argument. Generally, one assumes that showing generosity to those who are close to us by ties of kinship and friendship and showing generosity to the most needy among us are both goods, and the trick is to strike the right balance in this regard. But Saving Christmas is not interested in balance.

More fundamentally, this move ignores the fact that the very word “materialism” has too meanings. I’m going to get into this more tomorrow, but for our purposes now you should know that materialism could mean either “an inordinate love of possessions” or “a philosophy which holds that matter is the only thing which exists.” Neither of these, I would argue, should be reckoned an appropriate philosophy for the Christian, the former on moral grounds and the latter on ontological grounds.

However, there is a sense in which the materialist philosophy is a reaction to an equally problematic, equally extreme, equally un-Christian, claim: namely that matter is either an illusion or it’s bad (as the Gnostics would claim), and our goal is to save ourselves or be saved from this corruption by transcending the material world through spiritual athletics or through the acquisition of secret knowledge.

Christ’s Incarnation, his taking on the human condition, is not materialist in the sense that it makes selfishness okay, but it is in the sense that it lays claim once again to the created order, speaking again God’s affirmation that “it is good.”

And there are few avowals of both sides of this equation more profound than Our Lady’s song of hope and triumph which, we just heard twice. Mary’s Magnificat is a powerful reminder that when God acts it is among us, in our fundamentally good if sin-sick world, to turn the greed and selfishness and violence by which we are surrounded into justice and mercy and loving-kindness, first in this world and then in the next. Mary’s song is an indictment of the kind of materialism that Kirk Cameron seems to want to encourage while at the same time it is an affirmation of this material world being the best and most proper place for the transformative work of the God whom she bore to take place.

As we conclude this holy season of penitent expectation and enter the season of joyfully greeting the Christ Child, let us watch and pray and work for the fullness of God’s love to become manifest in signs as powerful as the Blessed Virgin’s proclamation- in the lifting up of the lowly, the exaltation of the humble, the hungry being well-fed, the promise of God’s New Jerusalem. It is, no doubt, Christ alone who gives the victory in this regard, and only fully in the life of the world to come. But here, even among things that are passing away, we can begin to participate in that Kingdom in its nascent form, knowing that the good works we do live on in the mind of God.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 3 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In my sermon last week–in a sort of throwaway, extemporaneous addition to the text I’d prepared–I used a term of art from contemporary theology and sociology of religion without explaining it. This is one of the many pitfalls I get into when I extemporize, so by way of introducing this morning’s Gospel, let me take a step back and explain what I was driving at.

So, the term I threw out there was “moralistic therapeutic deism” (hereafter referred to as “MTD”) It was coined back in 2005 by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe common religious beliefs among America’s youth. The tenets of MTD are as follows:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

If this seems like an awfully inadequate religious worldview, you’d not be alone. It is what, when I was a youth, we would have called “weak sauce” or what I’ve heard one of our parishioners here refer to as “thin gruel.” Three of these tenets are rather uncontroversial, if lacking in depth, and two (namely, that the main goal of life is to feel happy and good about oneself and that God is not particularly involved except “in the breach”) strike me as deeply problematic.

In all events, I would argue that MTD is not only a popular worldview among American youth, but that it is also prevalent among confessed Christians of riper years throughout the Western World, particularly those who have not been challenged to think theologically. I would further suggest that even among those equipped to make compelling theological arguments, including the clergy, there is sometimes a tendency to revert to the lowest common denominator of MTD for fear of causing offence in our increasingly secular and pluralistic culture.

So, John the Baptist presents just about the polar opposite of this Moralistic Therapeautic Deism. It is not a message to which we are particularly drawn today. We missed something significant this morning in hearing the Gospel according to the Authorized Version, which we’re using this season to sync up with the traditional language of the Rite One liturgy we use here in Advent and Lent. We heard that John “in his exhortation preached” to the people, but the Greek verb here is actually εύηγγελίζετο, which means literally “good news-ized,” and which modern translations render, “he proclaimed the good news.” How is this “good news” when the message he preached seemed so contentious. “O generation of vipers,” he shouted, “who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” How many fiery preachers do you know in our mainline churches who get away with the hellfire and brimstone approach? Not many. The ones that do happen to pop up never seem to draw in the crowds either and they are certainly not those who move up into positions of power in the church. John the Baptist would never have been elected bishop.

And yet the crowds continued to come. They seemed to need what John was offering them. They needed his harsh words. They needed this baptism. They needed to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

You see, the kind of baptism that John offers is not so easy as washing up before dinner. The baptism John offers comes along with certain expectations. “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” We too—or probably for most of us, our parents—made promises somewhat akin to this on the occasion of our own baptisms. Just like John’s baptism was a preparation for the coming kingdom, our baptism is a sacramental preparation for the Christian life, and it comes with some specific directions for how such a life is to be lived.

But why all this preparation? Why did Jesus need a forerunner, a prophet preparing the way for him? Why do we need a whole liturgical season to get us ready for celebrating Christ’s incarnation? Why do we need classes and counseling and so forth before baptism and confirmation? It’s all the same question, really. The answer, I think, is that the world needed then, and we need now, to be very conscious of Jesus’ purpose before meeting him face to face. To put it more plainly, and perhaps in a more theologically contentious manner, one needs to get his act together before it is possible to fully adopt God’s purposes for himself. This isn’t to say that God demands perfection. Rather, it is simply to say that Charles Elliot’s old hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea” does not tell the whole story.

This is because the Christian life and the teachings of Jesus are not all sweetness and light. John the Baptist and Jesus alike say some pretty difficult things. Take John’s words “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Jesus, too, said things that we sometimes want to ignore. We want to use the highlight and delete method of biblical exegesis. This is because the Christian life is not always fun or easy. It is hard work and sacrifice. It is about taking up one’s cross.

But neither did Christ come into the world to condemn the world, John’s gospel tells us. He came to save it. He came to fulfill God’s creation in reconciling God to creation. He came that humanity might be justified. Yet accepting this gift of God’s grace takes some work. It takes some preparation. And that is what Advent is all about. It is about preparing to accept the Christ. It is on one level about preparing for Christmas. This is a difficult enough thing to do these days. But it is also a preparation for what we used to talk about as the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Three of these four are things that don’t tend to get us in the Christmas mood, but it’s important to consider them nevertheless. We often forget, or even deny, that Advent is a penitential season and it does demand some effort if we are to observe it. It is a time in which we are called by the church to fast and pray. It is a time to recall those things for which we are penitent and ask forgiveness. It is a time when we are to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation, of God made human in Jesus Christ. We are to contemplate its impact on our lives, adjusting our lifestyles to more fully live in the knowledge of this holy mystery ourselves.

And we get a hint of what a life lived in the light of such knowledge looks like from John the Baptist: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.”
Most of us have a great deal more than two coats. We certainly have more than enough food. And yet, like the soldiers whom the Baptist rebuked, many of us are not satisfied with our wages. Truly living the Christian ideal, truly working towards radical self sacrifice, is a most difficult thing. Not many of us are called to live life as monastics, yet we must strive to devote ourselves fully to the cause of the gospel. This begins with things like giving gifts to the cancer patient families and gloves and scarves and food to the needy, like we already do. But that is only the beginning, and the truly Christian life, the life whose aim is preparing for the Kingdom of God, demands profound self-examination. It requires, as John the Baptist put it, that we bear fruits worthy of repentance.

And in this preparation, when we take up the cross of self sacrifice and adopt an attitude of pure and profound penitence, there is joy. You will notice that today that I’m wearing my rose vestments and that we lit the pink candle on the advent wreath, which color symbolizes the joy we find in the midst of penitence and preparation. This joy comes from hope in the coming of Christ. Today is the day that we no longer merely adore “the Lord who is to come” but rather we worship “the Lord who is now nigh and close at hand.” As Paul’s letter to the Philippians put it “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice… The Lord is at hand.” Let us see this not only as a gift, but as a challenge to redouble our efforts, to work even more earnestly to prepare ourselves to meet Christ at his second advent, knowing that there is profound joy to be found in that work.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I think it’s easy for us not to appreciate how radical Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist is, how counterintuitive a prophet this seemingly crazy man in the desert would have been.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

This is an incredibly subversive way to begin the Christmas story. God’s message was not coming through the expected channels, through the institutions set up to be the agents of God (in the case of the high priests) or through those in positions of temporal power, such as the Emperor or the Governor. Rather, the message of God, the call to repentance, was coming from this strange figure, this apparent madman, John, to whom few of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would have probably listened.

Now, John the Baptist was subversive in a manner wholly different from the culturally appropriate subversion which we’ve come to appreciate after the twentieth century, and which we’ve come to label “counterculture”. John the Baptist was not the personification of some Ancient Judean zeitgeist. He was not countercultural in the same way a hippy might have been. He was not even anti-establishment in the same way that the anti-Roman zealots of his own day were. He was much weirder even than that.

In Matthew we read “the same John had his raiment of camels hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” This was almost as strange a way to dress and eat in those days as it would be now. What’s more, John didn’t go to the temple or to one of the gates of Jerusalem to preach his message where it might be heard by those with some political or economic power. He remained in the desert.

This would have been reckoned very strange by the people of the first century, even the counter-cultural people of the time, who would have been used to self-proclaimed prophets, but of a more socially acceptable variety. This John character was not like them, but those with any sense of history would have recognized that he fit the bill, as it were, a great deal more closely than these other so-called prophets.

It had been more than four-hundred years since a legitimate, canonical prophet had preached in Israel, but if one were to look back at those Old Testament prophets, one would notice the similarities between them and John. John’s message was not self-promoting, as were the sermons of first-century pseudo-prophets, who claimed a messianic identity for themselves. Rather, John, like the legitimate prophets of the Old Testament, pointed away from himself and always to another, namely Jesus, as the longed-for Messiah. Like so many of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Amos, John arose from obscurity to take on the prophetic vocation. And his message, the message of repentance and of preparation for the day of the Lord, mirrored that of the legitimate prophets, particularly Elijah, the prophet with whom John was most readily identified.

We’ll hear more about John the Baptist next week, so I’ll leave it at that for now. But what can we learn from the little introduction to John which is this week’s Gospel? It seems to me that the most important lesson we get is that the Word of God comes to us from sources we might least expect. Certainly, we should be attentive to the normal modes in which we’ve come to experience that Word. We should be attentive to the Scriptures and to the teachings of Church Fathers and Councils and even to the minor insights I struggle to provide every week. But sometimes, and maybe more than just sometimes if we’re paying attention, the grace and love of God is made even more apparent, presents itself even more tangibly, in unexpected ways from the people we least expect.

I’ve had the Word of God preached to me more compellingly by people who come in and out of my office looking for help than I do from preachers. I’ve seen more love and hope in the lives of apparently unlovely people in apparently hopeless situations than I have from those who, like me, are in the business of loving people and instilling hope. I’ve even heard more fulsome expositions of Christian truth from the mouths of children than from many academic theologians.

And all these are all prophets of a sort, modern John the Baptists who have surprised me with their insights and have given me a new perspective on that old, old story. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences, the Word of God being made real in ways and from people you least expected.

So, keep watch. Open your eyes. Look for these modern prophets. We hear over and over again, and especially in Advent, to be watchful. Baruch tells us “look toward the East”; the Prophet Isaiah is quoted in today’s Gospel as saying “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Let us be watchful, though, not only for Christ at his return, but for the risen Christ in our midst, right now, being made present in ways and through people we do not expect. Pray that God may give you the eyes to see his messengers for what they are, and ask Him to give you faith in the message they preach, and that John the Baptist preached, and that each of us should be preaching: namely that great message of hope in our Lord’s return, for

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.